Fiction from NER 36.4 (2015)
I loved this apartment the first time I walked through the door. We both loved it, my wife and I: the unmarked hardwood, the two south-facing bedrooms warmed by the November sun, the floating stairs to a loft I could already see lined with bookshelves. The apartment was on the fifth floor. There was air and light and, three blocks from the East River, the street was quiet. I counted the spires of four churches through the double-height windows. From the roof deck, I looked over the Brooklyn warehouses—low, dark buildings, on streets I’d dreamed of—and across the water to Manhattan. I could imagine the two of us up there on a summer’s night with cold wine in our glasses, offering the view to the friends we’d make.
The apartment cost everything I had, before the monthly payments, which Lara would have to cover.
“You idiot,” said my father, when I told him.
Career, city, the expectations of my parents—what freedom to discover that none of them weighed, not at all. I was laughing when I hailed the cab that would take us to our wedding. A September in San Francisco, six weeks before we moved: sunlight across the seat cushions, stilled air, no clouds. We both wore gray. She had bare arms, me an open collar. My parents, up from San Jose, waited in the plaza in front of City Hall. My father was glum, my mother already weeping, but Lara, all grace, all forgiveness, kissed them both. Her friend Emilia witnessed and signed, and then the five of us sat awkwardly for a pasta lunch in North Beach. Before my parents drove off, my father gave me a bank draft for ninety thousand dollars. That was real money, even for a cardiologist. He told me that now I would truly be on my own, while I nodded and tried to look solemn. At home Lara and I opened the bottle of whiskey my brother had sent and went to bed.
We were twenty-eight and twenty-nine. Lara had an offer in New York in the tax department of a law firm with offices on four continents. And so we went.
In our first months in the apartment we would go out together after Lara came home from work. We went to see the new bands and the art shows. We drank absinthe in bars. I ate platters of oysters. After midnight, I stopped, on our long walks home, to piss in wind-swept alleys, while Lara giggled and kept watch. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she once gave me a hand-job in the darkness, under my coat, during the fourth act of Macbeth.
Winter passed, the city warmed, light became heat. With the double-height windows, we found that we were living in a greenhouse. In July and August, we ran the air conditioner and walked around the place in our underwear. I liked seeing my wife in her underwear. But when she was at the office, and I was working on my novel in the loft, the glare gave me a headache. The near-blank screen, the smell of my skin, my dampening T-shirts: all this awakened a thirst. I started to pour my first drink a little earlier in the day. Just a beer that I’d put in the freezer for fifteen minutes. Or two beers, sometimes three, before Lara came home.
“You’re getting fat, gringo,” she said, in year two. “You have a pot belly, no?”
Though I was several shades darker than she was, I didn’t care if she called me gringo or, frankly, anything. She could say whatever she liked in that accent. We were still going out after work, but Lara was right—I was beginning not to look the part. My T-shirts were getting tighter, and my face was swelling. I switched from beer to gin, for the calories.
Then we decided, or Lara did, that it was time for children. We had Ana-Lucia first, Zoe next. From entire winters I remember nothing but the smell of their blankets in the night, the warmth of tiny bodies pressed to my chest. Lara returned to the office three months after each birth. To pay for childcare, I took on freelance copywriting jobs. I didn’t mind. I was too tired, most of the time, to think about fiction.
After Lara weaned Zoe, at fourteen months, I went in for a vasectomy.
Two bedrooms and a loft for two people is one thing. For two adults, two children, a cat, and, during the day, a Tibetan nanny, it’s something different. The walls are closer now, and thin. The window seals have cracked, the spines of my books are fading with all the sun, and we have the air conditioning serviced twice a year. Lara no longer walks around the place in her underwear.
That’s inside. Outside, the neighborhood is turning. We hear jackhammers and breathe dust. New buildings block the view. Now we only see two church spires through the double-height windows.
In the mornings, my stomach hurts. At my last checkup my doctor advised me to stop drinking, or to drink less, or at least to drink more slowly. I know he’s right. I want to be fair to my family. I don’t want to burn my life to ashes. On the other hand, I’m thirty-six, not eighty.
At seven o’clock, with Lara home from her law firm, the girls dancing around her and the nanny gone, I’m ready. I have been writing catalogue copy all day. I’ve had black coffee for breakfast and an apple for lunch—my summer fast. With the sun dipping behind Manhattan, the shadows longer, and the apartment cooling, I leave the girls and their mother and go to the kitchen. I drop two square ice cubes into a highball glass. The first falls perfectly, the second with a duller sound—clack, rather than clink—as it falls onto the first. I cut a wedge of lime. The scent is in the air and on my fingers. I pour my drink, generously. With my first sip, the room softens. I sip and sip again.
Later, I run my blade along the whetstone, once, twice, before I pick out an onion. I break off three cloves of garlic, rinse a bowlful of tomatoes. I run cold water into a steel pan, on the second burner layer pancetta over hot, ridged iron. When we eat it is lovely to see my wife’s face past the wine and dishes on the table, past the candles. And in our bedroom, with the girls asleep in theirs, I kiss Lara’s neck. If she is willing, I hold her face between my hands. Our life together may not be as it was, but I still cherish the old gestures.
One night last week, at bath time, Ana-Lucia asked to play a game.
“Dada,” she said. “Let’s pretend you don’t know us. Let’s pretend we’re strangers. This will be a good game.”
The girls were in the water with their bath toys. I was on the ledge at the foot of the tub, with the bottle of children’s shampoo and a pink washcloth between my legs. I sipped my gin.
“Okay,” I said.
Ana-Lucia giggled, and then Zoe did too. I put the glass on the shelf by my head, next to a row of miniature vials Lara had warned me never to touch. I told the girls to close their eyes while I massaged shampoo into their hair. I asked them to tell me their names, how old they were, what colors they liked, which was their favorite playground, and so on. Ana-Lucia answered most questions for both of them, although Zoe managed to get her own name out first. I scrubbed them with the washcloth, their smooth necks, their backs. I paused to drink. With half my gin gone, I felt as calm—as unthinking—as a lion in the shade. The girls were happy and distracted. I continued to drink. The air smelled of lavender and mint. We were almost finished when I asked whether these two little strangers liked to eat mangoes.
“Oh, Dada,” said Ana-Lucia, “you are too silly. I already told you we like mangoes. Don’t you remember?”
Zoe said, “You are a big silly Dada,” and they both laughed, and splashed my shirt with water and foam.
My tongue and ears were warm. Not for the first time, I wondered how much Ana-Lucia understood about me. Then I wondered if it mattered. She is four. Zoe is two. They will have time to forget my heavy words, these evenings, and these years.
They were still laughing at me when Ana-Lucia emptied her watering can over Zoe’s face. Zoe’s laughter turned into a wail. “Soapy eyes, soapy eyes,” she cried. I was worried she’d call for her mother next. We were across from the lone, high window. Most of the room was in shade, but they were both glowing in the amber light.
“Zoe’s not my friend,” said Ana-Lucia. “She’s a baby, and I don’t like her.”
Zoe was crying harder. No one tells you, before you have them, that your children will suffer every day.
I swung my legs into the tub and began to tickle the girls with my toes.
Ana-Lucia and I both looked at Zoe. Even as she sniffled she began to smile. “Dada has big yucky toes,” she said. Ana-Lucia hugged her. She handed her the watering can.
My pants were wet to the knees. I put the glass on the ledge beside me and bent to kiss the girls. I had to be careful, the state I was in, not to lose my balance. I hadn’t shaved in many days but they didn’t complain. The way they were laughing again, with their soft little faces and sun-streaked hair—I was never like them.
I gave them another minute before I opened the drain. I lifted Ana-Lucia out first, put her on the mat, and wrapped her purple towel around her shoulders. Then I reached for Zoe. As I lifted her, she laughed and kicked back her heels. Instantly, I heard the shattering glass. She began again to cry. I had one foot in the tub and one on the mat. The wedge of lime bobbed around the drain. I stepped out of the tub, put Zoe down beside her sister, and wrapped her in her towel.
Ana-Lucia said, “Daddy, that was too loud. I want Mama.” Then she said, “Your foot is bleeding.”
I looked down. There were two red streaks on the tiles. It was strange, I’d felt nothing.
“What’s blood, Dada?” Ana-Lucia said. She was holding Zoe’s hand.
I said that blood was like orange juice, or it would be, if we were oranges.
Lara came to the door with her phone pressed to her ear. She took in the scene: the blood, the wedge of lime, the shattered glass. She shook her head once, blew air kisses at the girls, and left. Zoe had stopped crying. I rubbed the girls dry, dressed them in their pajamas, and combed coconut oil through their hair. I went as gently as I could.
Lara appeared again, this time without her phone. I tickled the girls beneath their chins. Lara led them away for their bedtime stories.
Bathwater was dripping from my pants, so I took them off. I wrapped the bottom of my foot with gauze and tape. I wiped down the floor with toilet paper, picked out the lime wedge and the larger shards of glass from the tub, and washed the rest down the drain.
In the kitchen, in my underwear, I poured another drink. I didn’t bother with lime or ice. For a moment, as the warm liquor ran down my throat and into my stomach, I wavered. Then I was steady again and thinking of the mountains, somewhere in the East. I imagined distant ridges and beyond them a monastery on a granite plateau. In my mind I saw the rows of shaved monks, their bowed heads and pressed palms, their crimson robes. I heard the low, inhuman chanting. Had I been there? The feeling, the religion, held me.
Lara looked tired when she came into the kitchen or, if not tired, a little sad. She asked me if my foot was okay. She would have to work late, she said, she wasn’t hungry. If I ordered some Thai food, she might eat something later on.
I called the restaurant, picked up the children’s toys, ate while Lara worked at the dining table. Then I read a long magazine feature about a Danish architect who had achieved astounding success at a young age. I looked up photographs of his buildings on the internet, but somehow I couldn’t see them, not properly—all those precarious steel and glass structures against endless snow and sky. Lara was still working when, near midnight, I went to bed.
On Friday night, I met my two friends, J.R. and Max. Like me, they are trying to be writers. But they have trust funds, and they don’t have children. They write in the afternoons, and then they go on dates or to parties. They sleep until lunch. You can do that in New York, if you have the money: you can be a boy among boys your whole life.
The city was stewing in its summer twilight. I smelled the garbage in the alleys, the overripe bodega flowers on the corners. J.R. and Max were sitting under the awning of a Franklin Street bar. I was glad they’d found a table. Two days after I’d cut my foot, it still hurt to stand.
They were talking about their novels when I joined them. An Australian literary journal was going to publish an excerpt from J.R.’s work-in-progress. He wasn’t smiling as he shared that news, but I saw something else in his face—boundless assurance, self-possession to match his pride. We had a round of shots to celebrate. Then Max said he had to start sending some pages out. His writing was humming along, he said, he was onto the hot stuff.
The sky was still pink over the trees. Women were out on the sidewalks, bare-legged, laughing; men too. From our table, I watched them come and go.
There’s white hair in my black hair, and Ana-Lucia likes to grab the loose flesh over my belt, but I’ve never been more vain. Lara tells me I spend more time in the bathroom than she does. In college, a girl I knew told me I should get a tattoo of the word “chocolate” on my hip, in letters that looked chocolaty. I often wonder whether I should have taken her advice. I think that next summer, if I lose some weight, I’m going to buy a Vespa.
I met Lara ten years ago, at an art opening in San Francisco, when the city was still—just barely—a city, and not yet the theme park it would become. We were in the warehouses south of Market Street, a typical opening, where the guests were looking at the other guests and not at the paintings. I was twenty-six and nothing special, but I was strong and slim—I suppose I was at my peak. I noticed Lara as soon as I entered (her long dark hair, her heavy eyelashes), but she was standing with a few other women in a loose circle that wouldn’t, I thought, admit an outsider. I leaned against a pillar, drank three glasses of wine, stared at the walls. Half an hour in, when I saw her move alone to the bar table, I followed. I walked quickly, lifted the bottle before she could, and filled her glass. From her first words, the thank you she murmured, I knew I could fall in love, for I’d dreamed of meeting someone with an accent like hers. She was turning away from me when I asked if she liked the paintings. She hesitated, I held my breath, and then, smiling, she faced me again. Not really, she said. By then I was glowing with the wine, and loose in the shoulders and face. It was easy to ask questions and to listen. Lara said she was from Buenos Aires, where she’d qualified as an attorney. Now she was at Berkeley doing graduate work in international taxation. I must have raised my eyebrows, because she put her hand on my arm and laughed. It was just work, she said. She was interested in other things—books, and art of course. She thought San Francisco wasn’t terrible but she didn’t want to stay. It was too small, people were obsessed with the internet, the nights were wet and cold. She liked the scar on my chin. I didn’t tell her I got it when I drank a bottle of vodka and fell down the stairs in my college dorm. She couldn’t pronounce my name, then or later. “Yobind,” she said, instead of “Gobind.” She gave me her number.
Lara didn’t have to work this past weekend. On Saturday morning we went to the farmers’ market. Lara and the girls played hide-and-seek under the trees while I shopped. Zoe didn’t understand the game. When I looked over from the fish stand she was crying and alone. After that, Lara carried her around on her shoulders. I bought strawberries, spinach, eggs, clams, and a black sea bass, but I forgot the milk.
Later, after I’d roasted the fish and we’d eaten, with Zoe napping in the girls’ bedroom and the dishes cleaned, I looked over at Lara and Ana-Lucia in the living room. Lara had fallen asleep on the couch with a magazine folded on her chest. Ana-Lucia was on the floor with her crayons. From time to time she stroked the cat, who was lying next to her in a square of sun. Below, in the back courtyard of one of the vinyl-sided rowhouses that the developers hadn’t yet torn down, two children were splashing each other in a plastic pool. I had copy to write but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. With the quiet, and the girls at rest, there was too much beauty. I poured some whiskey into my coffee and went upstairs to read Miguel Hernández. I won’t forgive this indifferent life, I won’t forgive the earth, or anything: the lines went like that.
On our third date, Lara brought flowers to my apartment. I served her osso buco—a dish that would have horrified my mother, a practicing Hindu—and a radish and fennel salad. After a few mouthfuls, Lara said she loved my cooking. The air between us was a sweet haze of wine and smoke, though I had the windows open to the night. Lara touched her hair while we talked at the table, and sometimes reached across to touch my hand.
Afterward, we moved to the living room for a dessert of roasted figs and cream. We were sitting next to each other on the loveseat and almost finished with our second bottle of Malbec when I asked her to tell me the naughtiest thing she’d ever done. She needed a minute to think. Then she said that the summer before she’d started at Berkeley she’d gone to Sweden on vacation. One night at a Stockholm club she’d met these three guys from the Swedish baseball team. I told her I didn’t know Sweden had a baseball team. Anyway, she said, they talked and she danced with one or two of them and then one of the players made a proposal. It took courage, she said, for him just to ask. Her voice suddenly seemed to be coming from a great distance, although our bodies were almost touching. Lara said she thought for a moment before she decided to leave with them. It was after midnight, but the sun hadn’t set, and young people were talking and laughing on the streets as if it were the middle of the day. The baseball players took her to an apartment. There were pine floors, colorful cabinets, the same brightness inside as there had been out. It was exactly as she’d envisioned a Nordic apartment. I was shifting on the couch, but Lara didn’t seem to notice. Her expression was serene, her body entirely still. She said they each drank a beer, the three blond men and her, they danced a little to a pop album on the stereo, they drifted into the bedroom, and then she went with all of them.
“At the same time?” I asked. I was finding it difficult to form the words.
She said yes, the bed was huge.
“You’re magnificent,” I said. She turned to me, with that same, calm gaze. Then I said, “Magnifico,” although I knew she’d understood.
On Monday afternoon I finished a copywriting project for a microdistillery in Gowanus. I had to draft the text for the company’s redesigned website. “We have worked tirelessly to find our signature blend of fourteen botanicals, all sourced from upstate New York and the Berkshire Hills. We distill our gin in a hand-hammered copper kettle, ensuring artisanal quality and craftsmanship.” Et cetera. The work took me two hours, but I intended to charge the client for ten. Tsering was at the dining table, chatting in Tibetan on her cell phone while Zoe napped. I told her she could go home early.
It was the first day since I’d stepped on the broken glass that I could walk without pain. When Zoe woke up, I put her in the stroller and we went down to the river. Something felt wrong with the weather. The wind had been gusting on the streets—hot, dirty blasts that had Zoe covering her face with her hands—but the water was still. There were fumes in the air, and we could hear the traffic noise from Manhattan. Some girls in bikinis were lying face-up on towels on the pier. I looked at them through my sunglasses. A shirtless man with impressive abs began to throw a Frisbee to his dog on the grass behind us. Zoe hadn’t spoken since we’d left the apartment, but as we watched the dog sprint and leap into the air to catch the disc with its mouth and run back to its owner, and do this over and over, she said that we should get one. I told her a dog was a lot of work, but if she really wanted one, I’d think about it. We could stop at the shelter and see what they had. In that moment I imagined myself walking our new dog along the river at dawn, the horizon brightening, the river empty, and a breeze blowing in from the Atlantic. But Zoe said she meant the purple thing the man was throwing, we should have one of those. I told her she could come out of the stroller and walk on the grass but she said she didn’t want to. She asked me if it was time to get Ana-Lucia from school, and when I said it wasn’t yet time, she asked me when her mama was coming home.
There’s a moment I’ll never forget from our first year together. Back then I worked as a copywriter at McCann. I was salaried, I had to go to the office. But really the days—the lines of fluorescent lights, the break room with its Ping-Pong table and stainless espresso machine, my bosses and colleagues—didn’t exist. I lived for the nights when I could see Lara. Desire was surging in me, yes, but I was also a little frightened, a little in awe of her. Everything was new. Six months after we met she gave up her lease in Berkeley to move into my apartment in the lower Haight. She worked on her thesis at the dining table, journals and treatises piled around her laptop, the green-framed glasses she wore to study resting atop her head. I had been trying to write stories, to begin a novel, but I couldn’t write when I came home to her. We had the couch, the hallway wanly lit at sunset, the bedroom when we made it that far.
Once we came home late on a weekend afternoon. Lara wore a yellow cardigan over her sundress, and long silver earrings I hadn’t seen before. We had been out wandering since breakfast. She took off her sandals and carried our groceries to the kitchen. I followed to help her unpack. Then from the doorway I watched her slice sheep cheese on the butcher’s block, along with the tomatoes we’d bought at a stand under the freeway. I went to the living room with the wine. On the coffee table I had my books about the Battle of Salamis and the female orgasm, but I wasn’t going to read. The light was soft, the city quiet, the couch warm beneath my legs. Under the radiator was a hole from which a mouse would sometimes emerge. I knew that after Lara came into the room, we would eat, and make love, and finish the wine, and read, and make love again. Then we’d go out to the movies or for dessert. I thought of what lay ahead that evening, and on so many weekends and evenings and nights to come. Even as I lived through the moment—even as I waited for the fulfillment it promised—I understood that I would never know a deeper happiness.
Yesterday I took Zoe to a playground before Tsering arrived. This playground is named after a police officer who died in the line of duty, but we just call it “The Dirty Playground.” A chicken slaughterhouse covers the adjoining lot. On summer days, there’s a terrible stench. In the mornings, we sometimes see raw chicken necks and feet scattered along the curb.
Zoe didn’t want to leave the swings. After twenty minutes, my shoulder had cramped from pushing her. I knew Tsering would have been waiting by then, and I wanted to get home. But I kept smiling like a swami for the mom one swing over. She was a blond in green flip-flops. Behind us a tiny white kid was doing wheelies on his scooter. He kept yelling at his big white dad, “Nigga, watch!”
I wanted to make eye contact with the blond mom, to share a look or a shrug, but she turned her head. A minute later, Zoe said she was ready for Tsering, and we left.
You spend years with someone, you learn things. Lara’s grandfather was a fascist in his youth. He hung his rifles on the walls of the ranch house where she spent the Christmas holidays. As for herself, she has always been a liberal, but the breeding shows. She puts guests at ease and knows how to act around animals. Though my father is a doctor, his father was a clerk in the water and sewage department in New Delhi. Before them, there were only farmers. Once, during an argument, Lara said that if she hadn’t known I was an atheist and a writer, she would mistake me for a peasant.
Last night we sat down to our weekday dinner: salad, olives, cheese, wine. Lara kept the bread and the bottle on her side of the table. The girls were quiet, the air conditioner running without pause. I lit the candles, although we didn’t need them. Lara’s cheeks were ripe with the day’s heat. Before the children, she’d had small, high breasts. Her flesh is richer now, and the necklines of her blouses lower. When I go with her to her firm’s holiday party, or to its summer barbecue, I see the hunger with which the partners look at her. Those slow, opulent wolves: they know what Lara and I know. Her second act is only beginning.
At first we ate in silence. I focused on the manchego, which is not bad without bread, and on my glass. She was the first to speak.
“You have to work harder. For Ana-Lucia, for Zoe. I want to know that you tried.”
When I said nothing, she stood up to get a glass of water. I have already decided that if she leaves me, I will move to a foreign city. I only need an internet connection for my work. I’ll live in the right district of Istanbul or Berlin. In the evenings, I will sit at a table outside a bar and look at women. Ana-Lucia and Zoe can come in the summers. They will learn Turkish or German.
Lara began to tell me a story. “Yobind,” she said, “did you learn about the War of the Pacific? It is a famous war in America Latina. We study it when we are young.”
I said I didn’t know anything about the war.
Lara said that in the nineteenth century, when Bolivia was a much larger country, it went to war with Chile. Chile won and took Bolivia’s coastline. Bolivia has been landlocked ever since. But the Bolivians have never stopped dreaming of the Pacific. The government built a naval academy in the capital. Once a year, on the Day of the Sea, the cadets wear their sailor uniforms and march through the streets. The war ended 130 years ago, but the navy still believes. “The officer cadets are all blancos,” said Lara. “Do you understand what that means, in a country like Bolivia? They are proud. It is an honor to be in the navy.”
I stood up to reach the wine. I poured myself another glass. Then I realized that Lara was waiting for me to speak. I told her it was a sad story.
“No, gringo,” she said. “It is a beautiful one.”
She sat quietly as I drank. But after I finished my glass, and rose to clear the table, she said, very softly, that I had understood nothing.